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MOVIES : Regarding Ridley : For 15 years, Ridley Scott has dazzled us with expressive imagery. 'Every time you make a film, really you're making a novel,' says the director.

October 04, 1992|JACK MATHEWS | Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday.

In her review of Ridley Scott's first film, the 1977 "The Duellists," critic Pauline Kael seemed almost perplexed by how much she enjoyed a movie of so little consequence. The story, about rival French officers during the Napoleonic Wars, wasn't very involving. The performances of stars Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine weren't very compelling. The filmmaker's passion for his subject wasn't very convincing.

And yet. . . .

"We sit back and observe it, and it's consistently entertaining--and eerily beautiful," Kael wrote. "You watch almost unblinking, because the imagery is so lustrous."

In the 15 years since "The Duellists," we have sat back on a half-dozen occasions, unblinking, while Ridley Scott dazzled us with imagery that, as Kael added, has an "expressive tone, like the sentences of a writer whose flow of feelings is richer than any explicit statement he can make."

To be described as a writer forming thoughts with images would not displease Scott, who refers to movies as visual novels and television commercials, a medium he stylistically revolutionized in the '60s, as short stories. Before his years at London's Royal College of Art, he recalls having passed a history course at Oxford by studying the accurate period detail about the Napoleonic Wars in Cecil Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels, and suggests that history may best be taught through feature films.

"Every time you make a film, really you're making a novel," says the 52-year-old Scott, whose latest movie, "1492: The Conquest of Paradise," will add kindling to the debate over the legacy of Christopher Columbus. "It's a pity you can't teach history this way. . . . There is something very captive about the dramatized act."

The question critics have been raising about Scott ever since "The Duellists" is whether he has the writer's intellect to go with the artist's eye. Until last year's "Thelma & Louise," a women-on-the-lam road movie that exploded like a smart bomb in the midst of the gender war, Scott's movies had been brilliant images in want of something to say.

After "Alien" (1979), a riveting "monster-on-the-train" horror movie, and "Blade Runner" (1982), a masterpiece of futuristic urban atmosphere, he went on a streak that all but cemented his image as a stylist-for-hire. In slow succession, he rolled out "Legend" (1985), a gloriously vapid fairy tale that not even the presence of Tom Cruise could save at the box office; "Someone to Watch Over Me" (1987), a Manhattan penthouse thriller memorable only for its sleek reflective surfaces; and "Black Rain" (1989), a U.S.-Japan cross-cultural chase picture that assaulted your eyes and ears without laying a glove on your brain.

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To conclude that Scott's films are victories of style over substance, however, misses the essential point of his work. For him, style and substance are inseparable. His compositions on the screen are brimming with content; they're designed to create atmosphere, mood, energy, tension and expectations. Whatever else may be said about "Thelma & Louise"--with it, Scott certainly proved he can direct great performances--it is a movie of sweeping visual power.

Even in "1492," whose period setting would seem to limit Scott's visual choices, the frame is constantly packed with textures. Mists and fog drift over the sea and out of the woods. There is smoke, rain, Spanish flags snapping in the wind.

"Ridley likes visible air," says "1492" executive producer Iain Smith. "He always finds ways to make you see it."

Scott has a quick answer for why he fills the air.

"It's very simple--I see it," he says. "Most people don't see things. They walk by them and it's right there. I see them. I see everything that's going on in front of me. It's a visible way of approaching life, I suppose. If I'd lived in a different time, I guess I would have been a painter."

Talk to Scott for a few minutes and it becomes clear that he is a painter, at heart, and by definition, as "one who artistically represents persons, scenes or objects in colors on a suitable surface." Those objects and scenes can be selling Apple computers on television or interpreting the discovery of the New World on a theater screen.

"I used to get asked, 'Is film an art form?' Of course it's an art form. Taking pictures of food at a high level is an art form. . . . Unfortunately, the film industry doesn't think of it that way. Therefore, 90% of it is not art. Producers and directors don't go into it with that sensitivity, and that's a pity. Film is 20th-Century theater and it will become 21st-Century writing."

Meaning that literature is going to become the opera of the next generation?

"Definitely," Scott says, "and there's nothing you can do about it."

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Scott says that just as today's feature filmmakers are influenced by the television commercials of the '60s, the next generation of filmmakers will be influenced by the work being done on video. They've got his attention.

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